Opposites Attract: Paul Auster Meets Stephen Crane

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By Charles McGrath

BURNING BOY
The Life and Work of Stephen Crane
By Paul Auster

Paul Auster and Stephen Crane were both born in Newark. Other than that, you wouldn’t think they had a lot in common. Crane is among the least cerebral of writers. He’s interested not in ideas but in experience and sensation, which he describes in language that’s vivid, direct and often metaphorical. Auster, on the other hand, is the dean of American postmodernists, one of those writers whose books are always chasing their own narrative tails. His sentences are long, allusive and sometimes deliberately flat. But, for all their differences, Auster loves Crane and cares so much about his reputation that in this enormous, impassioned book he has taken it upon himself to restore him to his rightful place in the American canon.

If you’re of a certain age, you were probably assigned Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” in high school — partly in recognition of its genuine greatness and partly on the mistaken assumption that it’s antiwar. But as Auster points out, even that book has lately fallen off the reading lists and Crane is now read, if he’s read at all, only by grad students and lit majors. Auster’s book is aimed, instead, at civilians, so-called general readers, and he must think they have a lot of stamina. “Burning Boy” is seldom dull — it’s often thrilling, in fact, to see a contemporary American writer engage so deeply with one of his forebears — but it can be exhausting.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the length of this book, one of the challenges of writing Crane’s life is that there was so little of it. He died in June 1900, when he was just 28, and left behind few of the clues biographers usually rely on: no diary or journal, few letters that reveal much. In 1923, Crane’s first biographer, Thomas Beer, solved that problem by simply making things up, including people; when he needed a letter, he forged one. Crane scholars ever since have been trying to get the facts straight, and Auster, who has thoroughly mastered all this material, takes more time than he probably needs to lead his readers through the weeds of what’s reliable and what isn’t. He also devotes at least half the book to the work, not the life. On the assumption that his reader is unfamiliar with Crane, he summarizes and quotes extensively. Crane should be read while you’re “sitting bolt upright in your chair,” Auster says, and he needs to be read “slowly and deliberately, sentence by sentence, with brief pauses … to digest the full import of what they contain.” For long stretches here, Auster does just that, unpacking Crane paragraph by paragraph, line by line, sometimes word by word. He is an excellent reader, it turns out, alert to all the nuances and surprises of Crane’s style, but these lengthy passages of analysis inevitably slow the book down and can make you forget that Crane’s was a life lived at a hectic, almost frantic pace.

The official cause of Crane’s death was tuberculosis (not the only way he reminds you of Keats), but as Auster’s title suggests, a case could be made that he simply burned himself out. He was born in 1871, the ninth surviving child of old-school Methodists. His father was a minister of the sort who took a dim view of dancing, drinking and card playing. His mother wrote temperance tracts. Crane rebelled early: He was drinking and smoking by the age of 6, and he quickly developed a fondness for poker as well. He attended college for just two semesters: one at Lafayette and one at Syracuse, where he seldom went to class but was elected captain of the baseball team.

He wanted to become a writer, and as Christopher Benfey, another Crane biographer, has pointed out, he was in such a hurry that his life sometimes seemed to get ahead of itself. He began his first novel, “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” about a girl from the Bowery who drifts into prostitution, while still at Syracuse and before he knew much about either sex or the streets. He made up for it by heading to the Lower East Side and, while working as a newspaperman, immersing himself in bohemian life. He visited hashish parlors and opium dens, hung out with prostitutes, and for a while even lived with one.

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    Similarly, Crane wrote “The Red Badge of Courage,” his great novel of the Civil War, at the astonishingly young age of 23, when he had never seen combat of any kind. He later got himself hired as a reporter during both the Greek-Turkish and Spanish-American Wars — partly for money but mostly to see what war was really like, and he made a point of putting himself in harm’s way. “Danger was his dissipation,” a colleague said. By then he had become improvident in just about every respect: with money, with women, even with his health.

    In 1897, while waiting in Jacksonville for a boat to take him to Cuba, Crane took up with a woman named Cora Taylor. She was twice-married, a sort of professional mistress, and was then running a brothel called the Hotel de Dreme. “The least boring author’s mate in American literary history,” A. J. Liebling called her, and she — or, rather, the chaotic life she and Crane had together — gives the second half of Auster’s book a big lift. They left Florida for England, where it was easier for them to be together openly, but though Crane was by now a celebrity, more popular in England than he was here, they were always broke. They lived way above their means, with lots of servants, and were taken advantage of by mooching friends.

    Auster is especially good on Crane’s last couple of years, which began with a sort of crackup. Assigned to cover the Spanish-American War, he stopped off first in Washington, where he seems to have sought out an old flame and possibly even proposed to her. In Cuba he behaved recklessly, almost as if he wished to get shot, and rarely bothered to eat or sleep. And then, when the war was over, he hid out in Havana for four months. Cora, besieged by creditors, feared he was dead.

    Crane returned to England just after New Year’s in 1899, and he and Cora resumed their spendthrift social life — even more frenzied now because Crane probably knew he was dying. He enjoyed warm friendships with H. G. Wells, Henry James and Joseph Conrad — Conrad especially, who loved Crane like a younger brother and liked sometimes just to sit in Crane’s study and listen to him write. In the spring of 1900, Crane began to hemorrhage. Cora scrounged for funds to take him to a sanitarium in Germany, but he was beyond cure and died almost as soon as he got there. His last words to Cora were: “I leave here gentle, seeking to do good, firm, resolute, impregnable.” She returned to England, tried to make a go as a freelance writer, and when that failed, went back to Jacksonville and the business she knew best: She opened another brothel.

    In the end, Auster leaves you in no doubt about Crane’s genius. He really was a prodigy, and his voice and style — sharp, observant, devoid of moralizing or sentimentality — were something brand-new in American letters. I’m not sure, though, that Auster succeeds in expanding the list of essential Crane much beyond “Red Badge” and the pieces that are already in the anthologies: “Maggie” (much of it apprentice work, if you ask me, except for the brilliant ending), “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” “The Monster” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” He does make an interesting case for Crane’s neglected romantic novel “The Third Violet,” pointing out that the dialogue is practically Pinteresque. And he pays some welcome attention to Crane’s poetry, which even now seems shockingly original. For some reason, though, Auster quotes from it in conventional, upper- and lowercase typography. Crane’s first book of poems, “The Black Riders,” was originally printed in bold capital letters, which only adds to the feeling of newness and strangeness. Here, for example, is the title poem, which reads almost like a series of urgent newspaper headlines:

    BLACK RIDERS CAME FROM THE SEA.

    THERE WAS CLANG AND CLANG OF SPEAR AND SHIELD,

    AND CLASH AND CLASH OF HOOF AND HEEL,

    WILD SHOUTS AND THE WAVE OF HAIR

    IN THE RUSH UPON THE WIND:

    THUS THE RIDE OF SIN.

    But the real news here — for me, anyway — is Crane’s newspaper and magazine journalism, which would be worth reading even if Crane had never written a word of fiction. There was a lot of it, most written in haste and for money — his books didn’t sell that well, and this was how Crane (barely) supported himself — but very little reads like hackwork. Crane could turn even a routine assignment like a profile of a train engineer into something brilliant and unusual. And he was a superb war reporter, far ahead of his time in frankness and directness. He wrote without editorializing, dwelling on the atrocity of war and its meaninglessness. “You can repeat to yourself, if you like, the various stated causes of the war, and mouth them over,” he wrote. “The mind returns to the wonder of why so many people will put themselves to the most incredible labor and inconvenience and danger for the sake of this — this ending of a few lives like yours, or a little better or a little worse.”

    Years ago, yet another Crane biographer, R. W. Stallman, wrote that Crane’s early death was no loss to literature, because he had exhausted his talent and written himself out. Toward the end of “Burning Boy” Auster argues that he was just getting going, and wonders what kind of writer he might have become had he lived longer. Another Céline maybe. I found myself wondering, instead, what would have happened had Crane gone to cover, as he surely would have wished to, the war in Europe in 1914. He might have become the great reporter that war never had.

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